GAA Football

Strictly audience provide good lessons for sports supporters

Dr Ranj Singh and Janette Manrara had the Strictly Come Dancing audience on their feet with their cha-cha-cha on Saturday. Picture by Press Association 

STRICTLY off the record – between you and me, reader – I took part in the first night of the BBC’s pro-celebrity dance competition at the weekend.

Not as a dancer, although in this case it was only my knee injury and not any lack of talent that prevented me from strutting my stuff.

This isn’t an attempt to secure sporting status for ballroom dancing, although the athleticism and effort involved are admirable.

Nor – sorry, Arsene Wenger and quite a few Gaelic football observers – am I going to argue the case for artistic impression and technical merit to be rewarded with points and perhaps even prizes.

However, being part of the studio audience did make me think about the nature of supporting/ spectating at sporting events.

Although they were mostly as middle class as you would have anticipated, that didn’t mean they were a ‘stiff upper lip’ set. In fact the ‘Strictly’ Audience are a good example to sporting supporters (although, rather disappointingly, no one else joined in with my fist-pumping ‘Dr Ranj!, Dr Ranj!’ chant).

Do you get annoyed when the crowd boos Craig Revel-Horwood’s usually harsh but fair criticisms? Well, the public are asked/told to do that. Unfortunately I was too far back from the dancefloor for my snickering at some of his more catty comments to be picked up even by industry standard microphones.

We were also told to clap and cheer at anything we liked or approved of, in order to boost the dancers’ confidence, which left my wife’s hands so red she may as well have been from Tyrone.

Sports fans (mostly) make up their own minds on judging performances, but that doesn’t mean their reactions are any more praiseworthy, even if they are at least authentic.

It’s almost 18 years since Roy Keane criticised a certain section of the Old Trafford ‘support’ at a Champions League game, pinning them with what became a derisive new label: ‘the prawn sandwich brigade’.

What Keano said then holds true now, and not just for Manchester United supporters: ‘Away from home our fans are fantastic, I'd call them the hardcore fans. But at home they have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don't realise what's going on out on the pitch.’

Other big English clubs also have issues with atmosphere in their home grounds. Arsenal’s was even derided as ‘Highbury Library’ before they moved to the Emirates. There, they pay people to wave those embarrassing big flags whenever the Gunners score. Cringe. At least the flags aren’t plastic, as at Chelsea.

Liverpool do still produce something special on big European nights but often other games at Anfield involve visiting fans chanting the taunt of ‘Where’s your famous atmosphere?’

As Keane pointed out, for quite some time soccer ‘supporters’ have been expecting to be entertained, rather than coming to back their team.

That’s probably a consequence of the increasing cost and bourgeoisification of the game over the past quarter-century or more, but there are periodic efforts to revive the art of supporting.

Keane was right too that away supports are often better, fuelled not only by passion but by alcohol, to some extent.

Yet even the more successful clubs, as alluded to above, can struggle for backing at home.

Ironically, improved performances can soon lead to criticism.

It’s easy to be buoyant when your team is doing well and performing positively, but that can lead to ‘You only sing when you’re winning’ syndrome. Any ‘failure’ can be greeted with anger, rather than ‘supporters’ backing their team when they need a lift.

A very recent example: Hearts are, somewhat surprisingly, top of the Scottish Premier League, five points clear of three other clubs and six ahead of seemingly perennial champions Celtic.

Yet at full-time on Saturday, when they dropped their first points of the campaign in their sixth league match, not even losing but drawing at home to FOURTH-PLACED Livingston, there were boos from some of their so-called supporters.

Sure, the Jam Tarts weren’t too tasty at Tynecastle on that occasion, but come on!

Supporting should be about getting behind your team whatever the weather, whatever the result, as long as the players are trying.

I’ve made the case before that some mistakenly confuse ‘biggest’ crowds with ‘best’, in soccer and GAA. Having the most supporters doesn’t necessarily mean they’re any better (nor any worse) than a side with a small number of followers.

Where credit should go is to those places with limited populations who generally turn out in large numbers, particularly as a proportion of that populace.

There are a few examples of that within the GAA, notably Monaghan and Armagh in an Ulster context.

However, Fermanagh also deserve mention: in my experience, their fans are the most partisan (i.e., biased), at least in terms of voicing their feelings. And, to be clear, I mean that as a genuine compliment.

Kerry supporters had become sated by success, not travelling up to Dublin in large numbers until at least All-Ireland semi-finals, but circumstances change, and their turnout in Clones this year for a crunch meeting with Monaghan was impressive.

Mayo followers too have kept the faith, even if the GAA didn’t do them or their team any favours in allowing their game with Kildare to go ahead in an under-developed Newbridge.

Supporters should play their part to help their team, even if that means appealing for fouls, throw-ins, throw balls, corners, cards of various colours, whatever – especially when you know darn rightly that the decision from the match officials should actually be different.

One other lesson to be learned from ‘Strictly’ - it truly was ‘first come, first served’ in terms of getting the better seats.

I thought I was doing well getting up to go round ‘for a look’ at 7.30am ahead of the supposed 9am validation process – my heart sank when I saw how many people were already there ahead of me (315, to be precise).

The only consolation was that I hadn’t had to walk too far from where we were staying.

So no great credit to me there – nor, by the same token, to those supposedly great supporters who rarely have to travel very far to go to major matches…

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